Intelligence, tested

By Peter Baeck | 11 November 2020

Across the world, local governments and other public institutions are increasingly recognising that the speed, scale and complexity of many public problems requires new ways of dealing with them. Tapping into the capacity of citizens and communities is becoming increasingly recognised as a key way not only to better understand the challenges but identify new, more effective solutions.

A simple but effective example of this is GoodSAM. The app connects those trained in CPR with incidents, such as cardiac arrest, near them. Now integrated with ambulance services across the country, it enables emergency services to make a call out to one of the more than 25,000 GoodSAM volunteers while dispatching an ambulance. Notifying a volunteer and getting them to provide CPR even seconds before the arrival of an ambulance can mean the difference between life or death or a life with living with disability.

This powerful model for mobilising our collective capacity to take action came to further prominence during the first national lockdown, where it has been used to rally more than 750,000 volunteer responders to support the NHS and the social care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New research by the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta and the Governance Lab examines what we can learn from GoodSAM and other world leading examples of collective intelligence in practice so that public institutions can make the most of the opportunity in this approach. These range from Safecast (the world’s largest citizen-generated data set on radiation levels launched in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan) to the vTaiwan digital democracy platform (used by the Taiwanese government to work directly with the public on developing new policies on everything from the regulation of Uber to banning plastic straws). Many of these focus on finding new solutions to complex problems, but forming a new relationship with citizens can also help hold local government to account. In Helsinki, for example, the city set up the Climate Watch platform and asked citizens to use it to monitor how the city is performing against its aim to become carbon neutral by 2035, through tracking 147 specific climate actions set by city.

Despite the stand out examples, it’s fair to say that to date most public institutions are still far from making the most of the opportunity in collective intelligence. The reality is we still don’t know nearly enough about how to do this well and how to replicate and build on the successes of pioneering civil servants, non-governmental organisations and community groups.

The main stumbling block is with connections. Leaders often do not know how to engage with the public efficiently in a way that can help them to solve problems and often have a reluctance to do so. They may run the occasional crowdsourcing exercise, citizens’ jury or prize-backed challenge, but they struggle to integrate collective intelligence in the regular course of business. Citizen engagement is often seen as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for efficient and effective problem-solving.

While these challenges apply to most governments around the world, and it is hard to make comparisons, the research also indicates that the UK is lagging behind when it comes to the use of collective intelligence in solving public problems. Across our mapping of best practice, the majority of leading examples identified in the research were based in Asia, the US and Northern Europe with few based in the UK.

We have sought to address these challenges by creating a framework for how collective intelligence can be mainstreamed within public institutions. In our analysis of examples, we have sought to understand the different relationships between crowds and institutions drawing out what works and what doesn’t work; including what resources were involved, what level of time commitment, and what practices made it possible to solve problems more efficiently and make public services better and more inclusive. Our practical guide takes innovators through nine key design questions that anyone considering developing a collective intelligence project should be able to answer from how to articulate the project’s goals and identifying the right participants to defining the tasks and the risks to consider.

COVID-19 has put the need for public institutions to make the most of collective intelligence into stark relief. On the one hand it has highlighted the challenges public institutions face when trying to manage rapidly evolving complex problems. On the other it has shown society’s ability to adopt and quickly mobilise new resources in communities to solve emerging problems, from the flurry of mutual aid groups to people signing up to volunteer via apps such as GoodSAM.

A better understanding of how to make the most of collective intelligence through better collaboration between crowds and institutions will put public institutions in a better position to respond to this evolving crisis and any that follow.

Peter Baeck is co-head of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta


For more on this subject and a checklist for the public sector innovators using collective intelligence visit

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In 2017 Helsinki’s newly elected city council drafted a four-year strategic plan to make Helsinki carbon-neutral by 2035. The plan tasked city officials with rapidly putting in place an effective road map for carbon neutrality 15 years earlier than was previously planned. Recognising the ambitiousness of this goal, the council took a very different approach to planning. The Carbon-Neutral Helsinki 2035 Action Plan was co-written by an expert group convened by the city’s Urban Environment Division but that group used an open process, holding workshops for civil society organisations, stakeholders and researchers to garner ‘maximise’ impact and use collective intelligence to its best advantage.

This collaborative drafting process produced an action plan identifying 147 actions to be taken to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels while also offsetting the remaining 20% by 2035. Acknowledging that few of these tasks could be undertaken by the government alone, as well as the need for public accountability, the city also sought to create a collaborative monitoring system that would engage the public as stakeholders in the plan’s implementation, evaluation and refinement.

In November 2019, the city launched the Helsinki Climate Watch website ( to track the city’s progress towards each of the 147 measures defined in the action plan. For each measure, the website identifies key information such as is the measure is on track, the planned time span, specific tasks that need to be accomplished as well as key contacts details and performance indicators.

The aim was to develop an operating model for effective, transparent and collaborative management of climate actions that offers more real-time feedback instead of waiting for annual reviews or multi-year milestone reporting. The website is currently the most visible element of this – it provides an easily digestible snapshot of each task along with the person responsible for completion, making it easier for interested citizens to get involved in the monitoring and evaluation of the issues they care about.

The monitoring system is less than a year old, so it is too early to calculate the impact the plan has had on greenhouse gas emissions or civic engagement in Helsinki. However, anecdotally, it’s clear the system has helped engage a far wider group both within and outside of Helsinki’s government.

Having people responsible for each measure has helped to build accountability in city government departments and made it a truly cross cutting issue. By distributing responsibility, the initiative has spurred departments to organise events to support Carbon-Neutral Helsinki of their own accord rather than at the initiative of the Environment department.


GoodSAM (Smartphone Activated Medics) a global platform developed in the UK, is heralded as an example of collective intelligence to follow, driving new and improved ways of delivering vital public services.

Co-founder Mark Wilson, a neurosurgeon and a medic with the London Air Ambulance as well as an expert in traumatic brain injury, created the platform in 2013 when he was concerned with the consequences of loss of oxygen to the brain after a traumatic injury. Recognising that in cities people are probably never more than 200 metres from a doctor, nurse or paramedic or someone able to perform high quality CPR, he believed that response times could be decreased and more lives could be saved by enlisting nearby volunteers to come to the aid of those in distress.

GoodSAM works by sending an alert about an incident such as cardiac arrest to those trained in CPR in the vicinity. The alerts relay crucial information about the incident, geolocate the victim and the volunteer, and help direct the volunteer responder to the scene. This enables victims to receive life-saving treatment before emergency services arrive and can mean the difference between life or death or living with a disability. Now integrated with ambulance services across the country, GoodSAM enables emergency services to make a call out to the 25,000 GoodSAM volunteer responders while dispatching an ambulance and its use has spread around the world to Australia, India, the United States and parts of Europe and South Africa.

This powerful model for mobilising our collective capacity to take action came in to further prominence during the pandemic, when GoodSAM teamed up with the NHS and Royal Voluntary Service to provide vital care to those self-isolating because of COVID-19.

Less than a week after launching in March 2020, more than 750,000 people signed up to be volunteers to help protect 2.5 million at risk people from coronavirus. The platform has radically changed volunteering by providing technology to save lives and enabling micro-volunteering. Health professionals, pharmacists and local authorities can upload requests for help on the NHS Volunteer Responders referrer’s portal and people can volunteer for as little as 20 minutes a week picking the job they want to do via the GoodSAM app – delivering medicine from pharmacies and transporting patients to hospital to making phone calls to check on people isolating at home.

The benefits to local authorities, the emergency services, the NHS and ultimately to patients and the public are considerable.

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